Coronavirus quarantines and your legal rights: 4 questions answered

A woman at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago gives the thumbs-up upon arrival from an overseas flight. Getty Images / Scott Olson

The unknown is frightening. And with the spread of a deadly and communicable disease – the coronavirus is both – individual liberties may be temporarily sidelined to protect the larger community.

Indeed, history has shown us that whenever the United States has encountered a biological threat, the government invariably weighs individual freedoms against the compelling need to protect the rest of us from a widespread epidemic. More often than not, a clampdown on civil liberties occurs.

As a disaster law scholar, I study vulnerable populations during various stages of disaster response. In the age of coronavirus, people are asking me questions about their rights. Here are some answers.

1. I had contact with someone who has the coronavirus. Am I required to go into quarantine or isolation?

The answer: It depends. The Constitution gives states the power to police citizens for the health, safety and welfare of those within its borders. This means states have the right to quarantine an individual, community or area to protect the surrounding community. With testing supplies in limited quantity and high demand, citizens are strongly encouraged to self-isolate. However, if you are a citizen who came into contact with a person with the coronavirus in a different country and then flew home, CDC officials at the airport have the right to detain you and force you into quarantine.

That said, quarantine and isolation laws vary widely, as do the consequences of breaking them.

In some states – including California, Florida and Louisiana – breaking an order of quarantine or isolation can result in misdemeanor criminal charges. Jail time could be up to a year, along with penalties ranging from US$50 to $1,000.

Those under quarantine can have visitors, but physical interaction may be limited to prevent the spread of the disease. Limitations, depending on your state or local regulation, can include confining you to a specific physical space and barring physical touching, including hugging and kissing.

Quarantined individuals do have the right to challenge the quarantine order.

You can find a list of state laws about quarantine and isolation on the National Conference of State Legislatures website.

Federal, state and local governments have the power to enforce quarantines. Getty Images / Justin Paget

2. Who can enforce quarantines?

All three levels of government have the power to quarantine.

States can quarantine citizens who present with symptoms within their borders. Local governments can quarantine smaller communities or areas of individuals that present with the coronavirus symptoms. The federal government too has responsibilities; it has the power to prevent the entry and spread of communicable diseases from foreign countries.

And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has the authority to detain and examine anyone arriving in the U.S. suspected of carrying the coronavirus. That includes passengers from airplanes, motor vehicles or ships.

The CDC can also issue a federal isolation or quarantine order, which allows state public health authorities to seek help from local law enforcement to administer and enforce the federal quarantine orders.

3. Under what circumstances can I be tested for coronavirus?

At this time, no legislation has been passed to create a legal right to testing.

You must contact your doctor to get approval to be tested. If you don’t have a doctor, contact your public health authority. Currently not everyone can be tested due to the shortage of tests.

The CDC website bases testing criteria on the following ailments: You have a fever; you develop virus symptoms; you recently traveled to an area with an ongoing spread of the virus; or you have been in contact with someone known to have the coronavirus.

But with the current shortage of tests, you still may not be able to be tested. As testing becomes available, the restrictions on testing may also change.

4. My state has declared a state of emergency; will that affect my rights?

According to the National Governors Association, as of March 17, “State emergency/public health emergency declarations have been issued for each state and territory, as well as the District of Columbia.”

A state of emergency allows a state to activate its emergency or disaster plan, along with the accompanying resources. It also allows states to help with local response efforts, including providing money for personnel and supplies.

The state of emergency can affect your rights because states have used emergency declarations to close or restrict the hours of private businesses, close schools and public buildings, and enforce curfews for citizens.

There are federal-, state- and local-level declarations of emergency.

The power to declare a federal state of emergency is given to the president under the Stafford Act and the National Emergencies Act.

In Oregon, the governor used its state of emergency, according to the Associated Press, to activate “reserves of volunteer emergency health care personnel, especially important in rural areas,” develop guidelines for private businesses and aid employees by defining the coronavirus as a valid cause for sick leave. The addition of the sick leave definition will allow employees to take leave to care for their own sickness or for an immediate family member.

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